Investors are hungry for meat-replacement technologies

Investors are hungry for meat-replacement technologies
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Impossible Foods introduced the Impossible Burger 2.0 at CES 2019 in Las Vegas.
Impossible Foods introduced the Impossible Burger 2.0 at CES 2019 in Las Vegas. -

The Impossible Burger 2.0 arrives in restaurants around the country Monday. The company Impossible Foods won all kinds of "best of CES" awards at the big tech show in Las Vegas last month for creating a plant-based meat replacement that smells, tastes and looks like real beef. There's also all kinds of science going into growing meat from real meat cells. Molly Wood speaks with Larisa Rudenko, a biotechnology expert and a visiting scholar in emerging technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She says climate change, animal welfare and human health are all driving huge investment in meat-replacement technologies. The following is an edited transcript of her conversation with Wood.

Larisa Rudenko: So on the plant side, we probably have hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in from various sources, including some of the companies going public, and some of the big ones have valuations in the low billions of dollars. The clean meat space is a little bit behind it in terms of funding, but I would say, easily, that the funding has been in the tens of millions of dollars, maybe approaching hundreds of millions.

Molly Wood: What challenges might come up as some of these technologies and efforts start to scale?

Rudenko: So some of the potential downstream ripple effects, if you will, are: What are the components that go in? What is the supply chain like? Where are we going to get the ingredients that go into culturing these cells? Part of the downstream values-based effects are: What's going to happen to the people who currently are ranchers or farmers?

Wood: So while it seems like it makes a ton of environmental sense to just switch over completely, as with every technology, it has a lot of unintended consequences.

Rudenko: It does have unintended consequences, and part of the bit about unintended consequences is that you don't always know what they're going to be. I think one of the goals here is to have scale-up that's affordable so that this doesn't just become food for rich people and that it instead provides food for everyone.

Wood: At what point do you think — I mean, it's hard to predict — but at what point do you think that tipping point could occur?

Rudenko: I think it's really going to be depending on the technology that's used to scale up and to ensure that you can get the price point down to a reasonable level. The way to do this is not necessarily an immediate switch from one to the other, but rather a series of little steps, where we slowly start moving from traditional ways of providing high-protein food to people to more novel ways, but not necessarily in one single jump.

And now for some related links:

  • Venture capital investment in food tech is up and to the right over the last five years or so, according to the analytics firm CB Insights. As of mid-2018, food and drink startups had raised about $9.5 billion. There are new venture capital funds popping up dedicated just to investing in food tech, like Stray Dog Capital, New Crop Capital and Anterra Capital, and big food companies are creating corporate funds, too. Last October, the Kraft Heinz Co. launched a $100 million venture capital fund to invest in food tech. Tyson Foods and the Campbell Soup Co. not only have funds or investments in emerging food technology like meat replacement, but also in things like tracing the food supply chain for safety.
  • Even though we talk a lot about meat replacement when it comes to beef, experts told us that coming up with fish replacement is almost more urgent. Raising and feeding cattle is really terrible for the environment, but overfishing is a crisis. We are running out of fish, right now. The Wall Street Journal had a good story last fall about the attempts to create fish alternatives using everything from tomatoes for a sushi-like product called Ahimi to eggplant, carrot and root vegetables mixed with pea protein. Try not to think about the pea protein, think about the poor little fishies.
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